Monday, July 11, 2016

Sickened : The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory

Reviewed by Christy H.

            In this memoir, Julie Gregory chronicles her experience growing up with a mother who suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Munchausen syndrome is when an individual feigns health problems in order to gain attention and sympathy. Munchausen syndrome by proxy is when an individual exaggerates or even inflicts health problems in someone else – usually a child in their care – solely for the attention it will bring to the caregiver. It is a particularly insidious form of child abuse, and one that still isn’t widely understood even today. 

            Julie spends what feels like most of her childhood in a doctor’s office. Pulled out of school early (that is even if she goes at all) on a regular basis, poked, prodded, and given unnecessary medications, Julie can’t wait for the day when her medical mystery will be solved. Then she’ll have friends! Then she’ll do well in school again! She’ll get to play sports and go to the movies! Her mother will finally be happy. Even without the added stress of  Julie’s “illness”, her home life is an absolute mess. Both of her parents are physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to each other, their biological kids, and their foster kids. The family also takes in indigent veterans for supplemental income but they are mostly just neglected.

            Pretty early on in the book, you get a sense of what Julie’s mother is all about: hysterics, manipulation, threatening suicide if she doesn’t get her way.  When she’s not taking Julie to the doctor, she’s making up lies about her children so her husband will beat them for their perceived misbehavior. (At one point, she hides a tool from his toolbox after she’s told him the children threw it in the lake.) “Toxic” doesn’t seem a strong enough word to describe Julie’s childhood. Unfortunately, it seems things only get worse and worse.

            This is a bleak and heavy read but an interesting one. As with I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, we don’t get a neat, little resolution but Julie realizes (thanks to a college course on psychology) that something wasn’t right where her sickness was concerned – a suspicion she long held but never fully explored. She takes massive steps to healing herself, and we do see a little bit of that which I appreciated. 

 I tried to find out a little more information online, and I learned that Julie’s mother denies the allegations and insists they were made up to sell a book. In an interview, Julie states that her mother tried the same thing with her younger brother but her father put a stop to that pretty quick: “In my family, boys were important and girls were not.” She has also written a second memoir about her father and his paranoid schizophrenia. 

Although I’m not certain how current it is, according to her website, she travels around giving lectures on Munchausen syndrome by proxy and occasionally consults on CPS cases that could be related to that particular form of child abuse. She’s turned her harrowing experiences into something that can help others.

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